Posted: May. 17, 2017 12:01 am
A political watchdog is claiming that U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-11th Dist., violated House ethics rules when he alerted a banking executive in March that a member of an activist group opposing the congressman worked at Lakeland Bank in New Jersey.
The Campaign for Accountability filed a complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics on Tuesday and requested an investigation into whether the 12-term GOP congressman violated House ethics rules by singling out an employee for her political activism in a fundraising letter to a board member of the bank.
Frelinghuysen’s fundraising letter stated that contributions were needed because “there are organized forces — both national and local — who are already hard at work to put a stop to an agenda of limited government, economic growth, stronger national security.” A handwritten asterisk appeared over the word “local” and a penned note at the bottom of the typed letter read: “P.S. One of the ringleaders works in your bank!” The fundraising letter had an attached news article that quoted Lakeland Bank Senior Vice President and Assistant General Counsel Saily Avelenda as a member of NJ 11th for Change, a political action group that has been pressuring Frelinghuysen since November 2016.
The Campaign for Accountability cited three possible ethics violations — tortious interference with business relations, a prohibition against using official actions for the prospect of personal gain, and conduct not reflecting credibility of the House — in the complaint filed by Executive Director Daniel Stevens.
“The House ethics committee requires members to act in a way that ‘reflects creditably on the House,’ ” Stevens said. “If trying to get someone fired for exercising her constitutional right to engage in political activity doesn’t reflect poorly on the House, what does?”
Avelenda was not terminated from her position, but she did resign, citing the letter as among the reasons for her departure.
The watchdog organization’s complaint cites Lakeland Bank’s own Code of Ethics which includes a section entitled Participation in Public Affairs. The complaint attributes the following passage to that particular section: “It is the philosophy of the Company to encourage on the part of its Employees a full awareness of and interest in civic and political responsibility. Each Employee shall have the opportunity to support community activities or the political process, as he or she desires…Nothing contained in this section is intended to discourage Persons from active personal involvement in the political process, including the making of personal political contributions, or to otherwise limit the rights and obligations of Persons as responsible citizens.”
As chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Frelinghuysen is among the most influential members of Congress and in his party.
“While Rep. Frelinghuysen used his campaign committee, rather than official stationery for his poison pen note, his position as a sitting member of Congress was still clear,” the Campaign for Accountability wrote. “Therefore, if, as it appears, Rep. Frelinghuysen used his position as a member of Congress to coerce Lakeland Bank to fire Ms. Avelenda, or even merely sought to make her employment more tenuous for his personal, political benefit, he may have violated (House ethics rules).”
A request for comment from Frelinghuysen’s Washington office was not returned on Tuesday.
Mikie Sherrill, a declared Democratic candidate who intends to challenge Frelinghuysen in the 2018 midterm election, said the group’s complaint was a “step in the right direction. The 45-year-old Montclair resident is a former federal prosecutor and U.S. Navy helicopter pilot.
“I am appalled that Representative Frelinghuysen used the power of his office to intimidate and target one of his own constituents,” Sherrill said in a prepared press release on Tuesday. “It is frankly chilling, and clearly deserves further scrutiny.”
State Assemblyman John McKeon, D-27th Dist., who is being courted by national Democrats to challenge Frelinghuysen, said he had “significant concerns” after reviewing the congressman’s statement.
“Referencing this note as innocuous is troubling,” McKeon posted to Facebook on Tuesday. “It can well be interpreted as a direct attempt to intimidate, through inappropriate means, a thoughtful individual exercising their constitutionally guaranteed rights. The specter of using ones (sic) position in such a manner has serious implications and should be considered by the Office of Congressional Ethics.”
The Campaign for Accountability complaint concludes by stating the Avelenda was simply exercising her First Amendment rights.
“It is shocking that a member of Congress — who swears on oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States — would retaliate against someone who exercises her constitutional rights by attempting to interfere in her employment,” the complaint reads.
The Office of Congressional Ethics has a two-phase review process which could take up to 89 days before the matter may be referred to the House Standards Committee. At that point the referral may become public dependent on the office’s findings.
The complete Campaign for Accountability complaint can be viewed online at: www.njherald.com.
David Danzis can also be contacted on Facebook: ddanzisNJH, on Twitter: @ddanzisNJH, or by phone: 973-383-1274.